WASHINGTON — Washington. -- When the government propounded its new Code of Ethics last week, we ink-stained wretches of the press were briefly disturbed. It appeared that under the new rules we no longer could take a bureaucrat to lunch. Freedom of the press was being abridged!
Then we recalled that under the old rules we never took a bureaucrat to lunch. This is not because bureaucrats are too noble; it is because we are too cheap. On that comforting thought we collapsed into the easy chairs of the press gallery and gave the code a closer look.
Since 1965 every federal agency has operated on its own code of ethics. The new standards would be uniform across the board. On the touchy matter of gifts, the code gets explicit. If the value of a gift does not exceed $25, under certain circumstances the employee may accept it, ''provided that the aggregate market value of individual gifts received from any one person shall not exceed $100 in a calendar year.''
If memory serves, the late Sen. Paul Douglas of Illinois lived by a similar rule. He marked his boundary line by the weight of a country ham. Up to 15 pounds it was courtesy; beyond, it was bribery. Another statesman fixed a limit on what could be ''et up or drunk up'' in a single session at table.
The new rules are explained by examples. Thus, ''an employee of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. has been dating a secretary employed by a member bank. For Secretary's Week the bank gives each employee two tickets to an off-Broadway musical review and urges each to invite a family member or friend.'' May the FDIC employee ethically accept his girlfriend's invitation?
You will be pleased to know that the answer is, yes! The secretary's invitation was not motivated by a devious attempt to conceal a cooking of the books. The invitation ''was motivated by their personal friendship.'' And may they live happily ever after.
Under Section 2635.201 we learn of an employee of the Department of Housing and Urban Development who is inspecting a building to determine if HUD should insure a mortgage loan. The owner offers her a bottle of wine. May she accept? Mercy me! What can the bounder be up to?
''She should decline the owner's offer of the wine, even though its market value is less than $25.'' To accept the bottle ''would cause a reasonable person to question the employee's impartiality in carrying out her inspectional duties.'' On the other hand, says the rule, ''the appraiser's acceptance of the customary courtesy of a cup of coffee and a donut would be proper.''
Under Section 2635.202(c)(4) one finds the pastrami rule. The explanatory example involves a purchasing agent for a government hospital who deals with a pharmaceutical salesman. On one exceptionally busy morning the agent offers to meet with the salesman on his lunch hour. The plot thickens:
''The representative arrived at the employee's office bringing a pastrami sandwich and a soft drink, so that the employee would not miss lunch. At the end of the meeting the representative stated that he would like to set up lunch meetings on a monthly basis for which he would provide the meal.''
Would this be permissible? Heaven forfend! Even though each lunch would have a value of less than $25, ''the purchasing agent should decline since his acceptance of these modest gifts on a recurring basis would be so frequent as to raise an appearance that he used his position to subsidize his lunches.''
In general, a federal bureaucrat may not give a present to his superior or receive a present from a subordinate. There are exceptions. If the secretary of Labor invites the agency's general counsel to a dinner party at home, counsel may bring a bottle of wine costing in excess of $10. At Christmas, a clerk-typist may give her supervisor a poinsettia costing less than $10. Following a vacation at the beach, a claims examiner for the Veterans Administration may bring his boss a $6 bag of saltwater taffy.
The rules occupy 23 pages; the explanations take 13 more, amounting in all to 108 columns of codification. Perhaps such elaborate rules are necessary, though it is a pity to say so.
In government, or in private life, we ought to know what is wrong and we ought to guard against actions that appear to be wrong. In a perfect world we wouldn't need to balance right conduct on scales of hot pastrami, but so it goes, so it goes.
James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.